A dream collaboration: Self-publishing for academics

Helen KaraHelen Kara‘s main interest is in research methods, which she writes about and teaches to practitioners and postgraduate students. Her most recent full-length book is Creative Research Methods for the Social Sciences: A Practical Guide (Policy Press, 2015). She also self-publishes short e-books for doctoral students. Her last Research Whisperer post was The Knife of Never Letting Go. She tweets at @DrHelenKara.

Nathan RyderNathan Ryder‘s main interests are in helping postgraduate researchers prepare for their viva, practice creativity, collaboration, productivity and personal effectiveness. He produces the Viva Survivors Podcast, where he interviews PhD graduates about their research and viva. He is the author of two e-books on viva preparation. He tweets at @DrRyder.

Together, they have just written Self-Publishing For Academics. This is their story.

We met, as happens increasingly in our lives, on Twitter.

After chatting there for a while, Nathan recruited Helen to take part in his Viva Survivors Podcast. He recorded and published her episode via Skype in January 2015. Then they went back to chatting on Twitter.

Eight months later, in September 2015, Helen had a Bright Idea. She does this a lot. Mostly, it’s not dangerous.

Photo by Ryancr | www.flickr.com/photos/ryanr
Photo by Ryancr | http://www.flickr.com/photos/ryanr

Helen knew that Nathan had self-published two short e-books to help doctoral students prepare for their vivas, and she herself was in the process of self-publishing a series of six short e-books for doctoral students. So, she thought maybe she and Nathan could collaborate on a short e-book to help academics who were thinking about self-publishing.

Helen suggested this to Nathan by email.

He was keen, but they were both too busy to do more than declare a common interest and agree to discuss it further in the New Year.

In mid-January 2016, Helen learned from publishing industry insiders that academic self-publishing was expected to take off any minute. So, she emailed Nathan again, and they had a chat on Skype, put their heads together and came up with a plan of action.

Less than four months, later we launched our new e-book, Self-Publishing For Academics.

The story of the process is really rather dull because an exciting story requires conflict.

We thought about inventing a few things for your amusement – a poisoned doughnut, an attempted kidnapping, and an evil butler, maybe – but we didn’t think we’d get away with that. What actually happened was that we agreed to do things, and then we did them. Sometimes, we emailed each other when we wanted a quick consult. Sometimes, we had a longer chat on Skype. That was about as exciting as it got.

As we are both alternative academics (alt-acs) who merge our business and personal lives, we were more open with each other about our commitments than we would be with clients. Instead of saying, ‘Sorry I missed your call, I was in a meeting,’ Helen would own up to Nathan that she’d been into town to do a bit of shopping, and Nathan would confess to Helen that he’d got caught up in preparing the next issue of his ‘zine. We worked around Nathan’s Daddy Daycare Days with his young daughter and Helen’s gym habit, as well as our teaching and other professional commitments.

Helen got mildly nervous at one point, when she wanted to give Nathan a piece of feedback about his writing style. She introduced the subject quite tentatively, but he said, ‘Oh great! Yes please!’ and reached for a pen and paper, as eager as a puppy spotting a lead. Nathan got mildly nervous at one point, too, when it was time for the beta-readers to look at the book: what if they hated it? (they didn’t!).

At the end of our first Skype conversation about this e-book, Nathan asked Helen, sounding quite incredulous, ‘Is it really this easy? I mean, can it possibly be this easy?’. Helen said she didn’t see why not. And, indeed, it has been almost unbelievably easy. We set goals, kept each other informed, and got on with making our book.

You might think that, if the collaboration was so straightforward, the output must be facile. We would disagree. We’ve worked hard on our e-book, through several drafts and a professional editor’s feedback. Reconciling our very different writing styles was quite a challenge: Nathan tends towards the discursive, chatty, and explanatory, while Helen’s style is much more direct, laser-targeting her words at the reader. We think we’ve reached a joint ‘voice’ that is friendly and accessible and, more importantly, so does our editor.

The aim is that the book should provide enough practical information to help any academic who is considering self-publishing to decide whether or not it’s a viable route for them to take, and – if it is – to guide them along the way. We both wish someone had written this book before we started, as it would have saved us quite a lot of time and effort. However, the next best thing is for our experience to make life easier for other people.

We still haven’t met in person, though we only live 110km apart. We haven’t needed to: Skype and email have fulfilled all our communication needs.

We have already talked about collaborating again in future, though at present we don’t have a New Bright Idea. But it would be a shame to waste a collaboration that is so productive and effective.

Maybe it’s easier for us as alt-acs because there are fewer – or maybe different – calls on our time? For sure, we escape a lot of the meetings and bureaucracy that academics have to contend with. We don’t think that’s the whole story, though: there was an element of luck in that our aspirations and working styles proved to be compatible, but we also brought a considerable amount of commitment and dedication, kept our promises to each other, and communicated well.

Whether you’re alt-ac or academic, that’s what you need for a dream collaboration.


  1. What a great article. As someone with a long industry background >30yrs and only a short >4yrs academic one it is very interesting to see the differences of approach and opinion between the two, not least around publication. Collaboration in publishing for practitioners is common and well accepted, as is self publishing, so again congratulations on bridging that gap. I personally feel there is a huge opportunity around sensible academic self publishing so I will be watching the evolution with great interest. Francis

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Francis, for your kind comments. You are clearly a highly intelligent and very perceptive man! But seriously – Nathan and I would absolutely agree that there’s a huge opportunity here for academics, and we hope to help at least some of them take that opportunity.


    • Thanks Francis! Glad you liked the article, and hope that the book is useful too. I’ve found self-publishing to be an interesting challenge over the last few years, but as you say it’s also a great opportunity for a lot of people.
      All the best,


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